Get into the real world

What do dance and virtual reality have in common? Mehdi Tayoubi, from the Passion for Innovation lab at 3D Dassault Systèmes, wants to find out.

It was in 2005 that 3D Dassault Systèmes, whose client list includes Proctor & Gamble, made a foray into the creative sphere with the launch of its Passion for Innovation lab. Back then it pledged a commitment to technology and knowledge at the service of research, education and artistic creation. The corporation has held true to its word and so far partnered with researchers, historians, artists and the city of Paris to create a new and common 3D language via cultural presentations.

One notable high-profile project in 2006 saw a collaboration  with Jean-Pierre Houdin, testing the French architect’s theory about the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza 4,500 years ago. Teams at 3D Dassault Systèmes used the company’s software to create a life-size virtual simulation of the pyramid construction method that Houdin had imagined. Under the scrutiny of Dassault’s testing, the architect’s ideas were verified as plausible. The result was a cooperation with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Harvard University, providing Egyptologists with a remarkable educational and research tool.

But it was last month that Systèmes stepped onto the dance stage, with Le Théâtre du Corps’ premiere of new production Mr and Mrs Dream. The show took place in Paris’ 13th arrondissement – a rather humble setting for what was by-and-large a very flashy show. Lasting 85 minutes, Mr and Mrs Dream is loosely based around  the work and influences of playwright Eugène Ionesco. Two characters, played by Marie-Claude Pietragalla and Julien Derouault, are unleashed from Ionesco’s mind to play out their journey on stage. It’s a nod to absurdist works The Bald Soprano and Rhinocéros.

The project has something of a boy-meets-girl story behind it. In 2012 Pietragalla and Derouault created a emotive rereading of The Chairs for a young audience, and it was at this performance that the pair met Marie-France Ionesco, the daughter of Eugène. Marie-Franco indulged the duo with stories of Ionesco’s private life and the obsessions that haunted him. The dancers then used these insights to inform their choreography and infuse it with Ionesco’s strife.

The piece took on a new dimension when Pietragalla and Derouault met Mehdi Tayoubi, vice president in charge of experiential strategy  and the Passion for Innovation lab at 3D Dassault Systèmes, an offshoot of Dassault Systèmes whose main business is connected with defense systems as well as light and heavy industry.  Tayoubi, also a fan of Ionesco’s work, invited Pietragalla and Derouault to the Passion for Innovation lab and what transpired was not only  an attempt to create a new theatrical language, but the invention of a new product for the cultural sector – The Magic Box.

‘As part of a digital generation, we wanted to explore what  our technology could bring  that was new to the Eugène Ionesco world’

‘Eugène Ionesco is a challenge for any theatre director, because he was thinking about crazy things in his writing and show – in our opinion, as part of a digital generation, we wanted to explore what our technology could bring that was new to the Eugène Ionesco world,’ says Tayoubi.

And whilst Pietragalla and Derouault put together the steps,  the team at the lab helped the pair to visually translate the storyboard, along with artistic director Gaël Perrin, Tayoubi’s collaborator of 14 years. Music was provided by the experimental techno producer Laurent Garnier. With the dream team in place, the shift towards an immersive virtual reality world began to take shape.

Explains Tayoubi: ‘As we storyboarded, we began to think about the interactivity between the character and the images and how that would be rendered in real size and it was after this that we began the image creation process.’

What followed was a research and development stage during which the collaborators explored the interaction between imagery, technology, dancers and music. For the computer scientist, it wasn’t just the challenge of working with dancers and theatre directors that fired his imagination – the Mr and Mrs Dream project was a small part of a much larger ambition to provide a new performing arts platform that will last for years.

The Magic Box is a reproduction of a virtual reality room traditionally used by Dassault Systèmes for testing diverse scenarios for manufacturers long before launching products into the real world.  ‘The first challenge we had to solve was how to take this virtual  reality stage and make something that could travel all over the world,  and be applied to any type of theatre. The performance space needed  to be flexible and easily useable by theatre technicians, not just by  our engineers.’

Tayoubi says that creating a mobile virtual reality room proved difficult – up until the invention of The Magic Box, a virtual reality room was simply too cumbersome to transport effectively. What he sought was a set so simple that theatre workers could erect it problem-free and  a structure that could be safely transported by plane or motor vehicle.

It’s a complex environment: the 3D world of The Magic Box is  projected in real time by software that handles the display on four surfaces (three walls and the ground), giving the impression that the dancers are completely immersed in a virtual world. They can appear on stage and in a flash leap onto a screen. Six projectors are needed to cover the 180m2 of the box. In Tayoubi’s mind, the set design is the  third character and performs in symbiosis with the dancers.

‘We developed all the tools and structures in a way that ensured calibration and installation would be very easy. We also wanted to show how The Magic Box could be adaptable to any kind of environment,  so we thought about three different configurations: small, medium, big.’

Tayoubi is tightlipped about the actual cost, other than to say: ‘It was not so expensive if you think of what we spend in general for a show. We have invested by providing our engineers to work on this collabor-ation with the artists, and we are a co-producer. Part of the budget was dedicated to the hardware acquisition – and that was quite expensive because of the hardware. From now on the price of the production will  go down.

He adds that the intention was to premiere a piece that would show off The Magic Box in all its glory. For him, the development represented more than just the invention of a product; it is also a tangible exposition of his philosophy that ‘art and technology combined’ can benefit the commercial and performing arts industries.

Innovation, science and art, he says, are intricately connected.  ‘It’s very important in our European society to put imagination and intuition at the same level as rationality and science – you meet someone and you want to go on a journey with them. Even if we say we are  a scientific organisation – and a very serious industrial company at that – if our society wants to solve big questions then we have to go back to imagination and throw away a lot of taboos.

‘In the Renaissance Period people were not as keen to question the link between culture and science, look at Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century; differentiations were created by school and university departments,’ he adds. ‘People might say to us, ‘you are crazy – why  are you working on icebergs etc?’ But the fact is that we are using virtual reality, we are not touching the real world. And, we can do a lot of things with virtual reality and simulation tools – they are there to try out all sorts of ideas, even the ones that are crazy.’

So does 3D Dassault Systèmes plan to welcome more performing arts companies into their lab? ‘We are not saying we want to work with all these dance companies. What we are interested in is addressing new challenges through innovation – such as an archeological project, or investigating global water supply problems, and ecology. Though if a company comes to us with a new challenge, we will accept it.

‘For us it’s a kind of middle and long-term investment because what we invent when we collaborate with artists are things that then become a solution for industries in our traditional market.’

‘Virtual reality will soon be everywhere, even in our homes. One day we will not talk about the technology  but only the artistic proposal of stories.’

He goes on to say that his personal feeling is that we need a new renaissance: ‘…with all the technological tools to collaborate, and people meeting around technology, and the 3D world, we need a language to make that collaboration easier.’

But what about the human element – a virtual production  risks robbing the audience of the experience of intimate involvement? Surely most of the magic happens outside of the box, in the hearts and minds of its audience? And isn’t that only evoked by something real, something you can sense, smell, and touch?

‘The fact is we have to put the story and the artistic purpose  before the technology, the technology has to be commensurate. We are going in this direction: virtual reality will soon be everywhere, even in our homes. One day we will not talk about the technology  but only the artistic proposal of stories. I think it [virtual reality]  will become mainstream.’